VVPAT Verification | Day 2: Not a single instance of vote-tampering has been found, ECI tells Supreme Court

VVPATs for Voter Verification

Today, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta concluded hearings in a batch of petitions seeking 100 percent VVPAT verification of votes cast through EVMs. Considering that the first phase of the 2024 General Elections is set to commence tomorrow on 19 April 2024, the Court’s directions in the case and when they will be delivered could be crucial in determining the procedure to be followed by the Election Commission of India (ECI)  in the upcoming elections. 

During the hearing, the ECI explained at length the various processes involved in polling and VVPAT verification. This included details about the technology used in the process, how it is stored, who can control it and how a discrepancy can be verified. The ECI also argued that the petitioner’s claims in the case were “baseless” and that their claims of discrepancy in the data was incorrect. 

The petitioners on their part contended that by the ECI’s own statements there was a possibility of human error during the polling process and therefore, additional verification only increases voter confidence. 

At one point during the first half of the hearings, Advocate Prasanth Bhushan, appearing for the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the lead petitioner in the case, flagged an article published in Online Manorama,  the digital news portal of Malayala Manorama this morning. The article reported that two candidates in Kasargod, Kerala alleged that during  mock polls conducted in the area extra votes were registered in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “Look into this Mr Singh,” Justice Khanna told Senior Advocate Manninder Singh representing the ECI. After lunch, the ECI responded that they had investigated the matter and that report was false. “These news reports are false. We have verified the allegation from the district collector… We will submit a detailed report to the court,” the Commission told the Bench. 

Counting happens immediately, VVPAT audit can happen later

Before listening to the ECI, the Bench allowed the petitioners to make quick submissions and conclude their arguments. 

Advocate Nizam Pasha, on the petitioner’s side, reiterated that a voter must be allowed to physically take the VVPAT slip and place it in the sealed box. When the Bench pointed out that this might breach the right to secrecy of the vote, Pasha responded that the right to secrecy and the right to know that the vote was cast accurately were not conflicting rights—they both belonged to the voter. Therefore, there was no question of prioritising one over another. He also contended that since they were not conflicting right, the proportionality test as laid out by the Court in the recent Electoral Bonds judgement also did not apply. 

Bhushan  argued next. He stated that at the moment, once a vote is cast, a light turns on in the VVPAT machine and the voter can see it for seven seconds before the light goes off and the slip is cut and dropped into an opaque sealed box. He argued that the least the ECI could do was to ensure that the light remained on till the slip fell into the box so that the voter could see that the vote was indeed recorded and that there was no additional slip falling. 

Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde stressed that VVPAT was an audit system, therefore it need not happen simultaneously with the counting of votes. Counting could happen first and audit could follow. This would ensure voter confidence in the system. 

The three components of the EVM-VVPAT

The Bench spent a considerable amount of time during today’s hearing understanding the functioning of the VVPATs. “Start from zero,” Justice Khanna said. He asked the ECI several questions on how information is loaded in the VVPATs, how they are stored, what checks are in place to ensure that the right symbols are uploaded and more. Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Nitesh Vyas, patiently took the Bench through the process from start to finish. “Whatever I am saying, is with authority,” he told the Bench. 

Vyas informed the Bench that voting through EVMs involved three units—the Ballot Unit, the Control Unit (CU) and the VVPAT. The ballot unit allows the voter to press the button and cast a vote, the CU was the master unit which stores the vote data and the VVPAT was a verification system introduced 10 years ago. 

The Ballot Unit, Vyas told the Bench, does not recognise parties and symbols. It counts the votes with buttons and records the total number of votes per button. The Bench enquired how this was translated into the printer of the VVPAT. Vyas responded that the VVPAT has symbols associated with each button. Once a vote is cast, the CU gives a message to the VVPAT to print the symbol that was linked to the button pressed. 

The printer roll in each VVPAT, the ECI told the Court, could record up to 1500 votes, whereas each EVM can record 2000 votes. The paper contains a serial number, party symbol and the name of the candidate are loaded into the Symbol Loading Unit (SLU) of the VVPATs. These were in image form and not in the form of any data connected with any software. Therefore, they could not be tampered with. “There must be some software to load the symbols?” Justice Khanna enquired. Vyas responded that there was a four MB flash memory in each machine which stored the symbols. The SLUs are fed into the flash memory of the VVPATs by the Returning Officer (RO) about seven days before the polling begins; this was done in the presence of the candidates or the representatives of various parties. 

Once the flash memory was loaded, a command to print was given by the RO to ensure that the right symbols were loaded. Once this was done, all the candidates signed a document confirming the same. 

Storage in strongrooms

On being questioned about the storage of the VVPATs, the ECI informed the Court that the machines were stored in a strongroom in each constituency. These strongrooms are opened by the RO in the presence of the candidates before polling. 

After polling concludes, the machines are taken back to strong rooms, which are sealed in the presence of candidates. On counting day, strong rooms are opened in the presence of candidates. 

Also, 50 percent of the booth, the ECI informed the Bench, had CCTV streams. 

ECI: We have nothing to hide

Buttressing further, the transparency in the process, Vyas informed the Bench that mock polling could be done to test any randomly selected machines in the presence of the candidates. No mismatch was found, he told the Court. Further, he submitted that so far, over four crore VVPATS were verified and not a single instance of mismatch or tampering was recorded. 

After lunch, the Bench stated that all this information may not be comprehensible to the average citizen. “There seems to be a discrepancy in what you have told us and what is available in public domain,” Justice Khanna remarked. Vyas responded that  most of this information was available in the public domain in the form of FAQs and they would be open to fill in any gaps in information. “We have nothing to hide, My Lord,” he said matter-of-factly. 

Forms 17A and 17C of the ECI Rules

From 17A stipulated under the ECI Rules of 1961 provided for a record of the registry of voters. Form 17C maintains a record of the total number of votes recorded. The Bench asked the ECI what the process was in case of a mismatch between the total number in both forms. The ECI clarified that the total number of votes at the time of counting were tallied with the total in Form 17C. VVPATs were brought in for scrutiny only in case of a dispute. 

Even during the scrutiny process, Vyas told the Bench there was a safety check in place. Every machine had an Unauthorised Access Detection Module (UADM) to ensure that no unauthorised person could access the records. 

Singh: The petitioners’ claims are baseless

After Vyas, Singh argued that all the claims and apprehensions raised by the petitioners, including their reliance on the report by BloombergQuint alleging mismatch during the 2019 elections were baseless. He claimed that it was crucial to ensure that no aspersions were cast on a constitutional body like the ECI. He contended that there was no scope for “tampering” at any stage as there were proper checks and balances at every level. 

Further, Singh contended that the petitioners’ suggestion to return to paper ballots was “retrograde.” He asserted that technical parliamentary committees were constituted from time-to-time to scrutinise any discrepancies. 

Singh also took the Bench through a series of precedents in which the Court had dismissed similar pleas for excessive scrutiny and cautioned against it. 

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta addressed the Bench for a few minutes after Singh. He asserted that the petitioners were making a joke of the democratic process and approaching the Court over the same issue time and again. He also stated that he had already cautioned the counsel on his side to be prepared for some “planted articles or news reports” by the petitioners. The Bench however, responded that people were entitled to post their opinions. 

Bench: Let’s not be over suspicious

During what can only be described as a rushed rejoinder, Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan representing Mr. Arun Kumar Aggarwal, a fellow-petitioner in the case, objected to this attribution of intention by the respondents. “We are not making allegations against the ECI. We also understood how it works but what we are highlighting is the doubt we have about the system and there are reasons for the doubt.” He pointed out that by the ECI’s own words in its Counter Affidavit, there was scope for human error in the process. Currently, he stated that there was no system to record the total number of VVPAT slips. Therefore, he recommended this be introduced.  

Towards the end of the hearing, Bhushan interrupted the Bench again to bring up the issue of the opaqueness of the box. “You are taking it too far,” Justice Khanna cautioned. He stated that when something right was done, it needed to be acknowledged and that it was not right to be overly suspicious of the matter. “You cannot be critical of everything…” Justice Khanna said. 

To the respondents’ arguments that the VVPAT vote counting is a time consuming process, the petitioners strongly argued in the interest of better voter transparency and suggested an automatic counting system that could count the paper slips once they were sorted according to their symbols. 

After hearing other fleeting submissions from an intervenor appearing in person—Sabu Steephen and Senior Advocates Santosh Paul and Sanjay Hegde on the petitioners, the Bench reserved judgement in the case.